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Manhunt Review: Tobias Menzies Leads the Hunt for Lincoln's Killer in Apple TV+'s High-Stakes Historical Drama

The series offers a compelling look at an inflection point in American history

Keith Phipps
Brandon Flynn and Tobias Menzies, Manhunt

Brandon Flynn and Tobias Menzies, Manhunt

Apple TV+

The greatest what-if in American history belongs to April 14, 1865, the night Abraham Lincoln attended a play at Ford's Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth, an actor enraged at the Confederacy's defeat in the American Civil War, assassinated him. Lincoln had led America through its bloodiest hours, and now, mere weeks after delivering a second inaugural and only days after the war's end, he appeared poised to preside over a sure-to-be difficult reconciliation he undoubtedly would have conducted differently than his successor, Andrew Johnson, who'd freed his slaves less than two years before becoming vice president and had little appetite for pursuing equality for the nation's formerly enslaved. 

Manhunt, an adaptation of James L. Swanson's 2007 bestseller Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer created by showrunner Monica Beletsky (a veteran of Friday Night Lights, The Leftovers, and Fargo, among other series), uses the search for Booth as its framework but also allows space to contemplate such what-ifs. It takes the form of a detective story, but its backdrop, a fragile America deciding how (or if) to move forward after the war, often proves just as interesting. That the two elements are wrapped so tightly around each other helps make its seven episodes compelling. It's a story with high stakes at every level.

Memorably played by Tobias Menzies, Lincoln's friend and secretary of war Edwin Stanton serves as the series' central figure. Brilliant, obsessive, but in frail health, he leads the investigation even after being confined to bed rest because of an unshakable sense that he's the only person who can track down the killer. That Stanton's prey follows an unpredictable path through a network of Confederate sympathizers doesn't help, even if Booth often behaves as if he wants to get caught, starting with his decision to leap to the stage after shooting Lincoln. Yet, as played by Anthony Boyle, he emerges as a vile but recognizably human figure. Though famous enough as an actor to be recognized on the street, his career has played out in the shadows of his more famous father and brother. Playing the role of an assassin gives him the spotlight he's struggled to find elsewhere.




  • Historical detail
  • Strong acting


  • Moments of simplified history

Stanton and Booth provide Manhunt's focal points, but they're far from the series' only memorable characters. Manhunt's extended scope — geographically and chronologically — is one of its great strengths. Though the pursuit of Booth proceeds from Washington, D.C., toward Virginia (where Booth expects to be greeted as a hero), the investigation stretches to New York and Montreal (both sites for Confederate money laundering and espionage). 

Along the way it finds room for a sprawling cast that includes Matt Walsh and Patton Oswalt, who deliver strong dramatic performances as, respectively, Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated Booth's wounded leg, and spymaster Lafayette Baker. And while men drive the action, some of the most memorable contributions come from Lili Taylor as Mary Todd Lincoln (whom she plays with a restraint that pushes against her reputation as mentally unstable); Betty Gabriel as Elizabeth Keckley, the author and activist who worked as the First Lady's seamstress; and Lovie Simone as Mary Simms, one of the formerly enslaved Black servants to Mudd whose testimony helped convict him. 

Beletsky's decision to incorporate flashbacks throughout the series also allows for a standout performance from Hamish Linklater as Lincoln, playing the president as a complex figure capable of folksy anecdotes one moment and grave seriousness the next. Where tense scenes between Stanton and Andrew Johnson (Glenn Morshower) provide a sense of the conflicting visions competing to reshape the country after the war, scenes between Stanton and Lincoln tie Stanton's obsessiveness to his deep, personal friendship with the president.

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Sharply directed by Carl Franklin, John Dahl, and Eva Sørhaug, Manhunt keeps a lot of wheels spinning at once. Beletsky and her writing staff also bring a strong vision to the material's historical context. Attempts have been made to rehabilitate Mudd's image for years, and another convicted conspirator, Mary Surratt (Carrie Lazar), received a sympathetic treatment on screen as recently as Robert Redford's 2010 film The Conspirator. Manhunt has little use for any ambiguity when it comes to its Confederate sympathizers. A few conspicuous nods to current times suggest the reasoning. When Stanton says in the first episode, "This is America, we replace our presidents with elections, not with coups," it's clunky but resonant.

Narratively, it all runs smoothly, at least most of the time. Some historical shorthand is unavoidable, but the compressed timeline that allows Manhunt to connect Lincoln's assassination and the hunt for Booth with the events surrounding it can make for some strange moments. This is particularly true of scenes involving Johnson's revocation of land grants to the formerly enslaved — the rescinded promise of forty acres and a mule — which play like history on fast forward, and the epilogue feels rushed. Like the recent True Detective: Night Country, it's the rare miniseries that feels one episode too short, rather than two episodes too long.

Filled with fascinating details that go well beyond high school history books and strong performances from its leads to its bit players, Manhunt is never less than compelling, however. It offers a deep dive into one of the past's true inflection points, considering not just the facts of the assassination but the ways in which it redirected history. That night at Ford's Theatre may have inspired countless questions about what might have been, but Manhunt attempts a clear-eyed look at what really was and why it mattered.

Premieres: The first two episodes premiere on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 15, with subsequent episodes released weekly
Who's in it: Tobias Menzies, Anthony Boyle, Lovie Simone
Who's behind it: Monica Beletsky
For fans of: Historical fiction, cat-and-mouse stories
How many episodes we watched: 7 of 7